A peek into Taiwan's small Jewish community: Interview with Rabbi Cody Bahir

Taiwan is a society where the vast majority of its 23 million population believes in a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism — beliefs that are not mutually exclusive. Yet many minority religious groups also coexist, including Muslims, Christians, and Jewish people, who are a relatively new religious community present on the island. Global Voices talked to Rabbi Dr. Cody R. Bahir to find out about the history of this group in Taiwan.

For more on religious diversity in Taiwan, read: End of Ramadan in Taipei shows role of Islam in Taiwan's diplomacy 

Rabbi Bahir is originally from Kentucky and spent years in the Hasidic community in the US. From 2011–2017 he lived in Taiwan, conducting doctoral fieldwork before returning to the US as a Post-doctoral scholar in Chinese Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2023, he came back to Taiwan, where he now serves as the rabbi of the Taiwan Jewish Community. Global Voices interviewed him to find out about the Jewish community in Taiwan. The interview took place over email after a meeting in Taipei and has been edited for style and brevity.

Portrait of Rabbi Dr. Cody R. Bahir. Photo used with permission.

Filip Noubel (FN): What is the history of the Jewish community in Taiwan?

Rabbi Dr. Cody R. Bahir (RCB): The Taiwanese Jewish Community (TJC) — the congregation to which I serve as Rabbi — has existed in various incarnations for almost 70 years. The history of the Jews in Taiwan begins after the U.S.A. and Taiwan signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. Jewish holiday and Sabbath services began to be held to meet the needs of Jewish-American military personnel stationed in Taiwan. Then, due to the influx of American GIs during the Vietnam war, a U.S. military chaplain based in the Philippines would occasionally visit.

In the 1960s and 1970s, American expats became the driving force behind Taiwan’s Jewish Community. After Taiwan’s global position changed in the 1970s, Taiwan’s Jews created a community independent of the American military. This resulted in the birth of the Taiwanese Jewish Community (TJC) as a nationally recognized non-profit organization.

Then, in 1975, the enigmatic Dr. Ephraim Ferdinand Einhorn (1918–2021) came onto the scene. For over 30 years, he was the only rabbi living in Taiwan. In 2003, the TJC joined forces with Einhorn, who remained the congregation’s rabbi until his death in 2021, three days after his 103rd birthday.

In 2011, Rabbi Shlomi Tabib, a missionary of the Chabad movement moved to Taiwan and eventually established a Chabad house in Taipei. Then, following the opening of the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center of Taiwan, Tabib relocated to the synagogue housed within the community center.

In 2021, Jeffrey D. Schwartz, a Jewish-American businessman who has been in Taiwan for decades, opened the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center of Taiwan to serve as a Jewish cultural center in order to strengthen ties between local Taiwanese and the island’s Jewish population.

In June of 2023, I moved back to Taiwan to begin my tenure as rabbi of the TJC, thus becoming the island’s first full-time, non-Orthodox rabbi in history.

FN: Can you describe what the community looks like today? Who are its members, and their origins, including the different schools present on the island, synagogues, and museums?

RCB : Currently, there are two synagogues in Taiwan, the Taiwan Jewish Community (TJC) and Chabad Taiwan. Since 2021, Taiwanese Jewish life has been additionally enriched by the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center.

The Taiwan Jewish Community (TJC) is a non-denominational congregation that caters to Jews from various denominational identities. TJC services resemble what one would experience in a typical Conservative or Reform synagogue in the United States as they are egalitarian, meaning that women and men participate and lead equally, and there is no gender-based separate seating.

The TJC’s members represent a mix on long-term expats from the U.S.A., Europe, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East, and a more temporary Jewish population. The temporary population consists of students, businesspeople, engineers, and visiting scholars and researchers.

Chabad Taiwan overseen by Shlomi Tabib, meets in the synagogue housed within the Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center and is affiliated with the Orthodox denomination. While some longtime expats regularly attend Chabad services, the synagogue particularly caters to overseas Orthodox Jewish visitors.

The Jeffrey D. Schwartz Jewish Community Center is the first permanent Jewish center in the history of Taiwan. Although it houses the Chabad congregation, it is not affiliated with Chabad. In addition to housing Taiwan’s only kosher restaurant and ‘mikvah‘ (ritual bath), it regularly hosts Jewish dignitaries from Israel. The center additionally houses an extremely impressive museum displaying pieces from Jeffrey D. Schwartz’s vast collection of Judaica from around the world.

FN: In your experience, what do most Taiwanese people know about Judaism? 

RCB : In general, very little. Given the fact that we are a very tiny minority here and until recently, there has never been a sizeable and viable Jewish community in East Asia, this is not at all surprising.

However, I have found that the vast majority of Taiwanese people have a very positive view of Jews — despite the fact that they may never have met one. I have heard admiration for the Jewish people’s ‘5,000 years of culture’ from many Han-Taiwanese whom I have met. They marvel at the fact that a non-Chinese culture has existed and thrived since the time of their Yellow Emperor. I have had similarly positive experiences from Taiwan’s indigenous aboriginal population, who express admiration that such a tiny people has been able to keep their culture alive despite 2,000 years of exile.

While I have encountered people in Taiwan who articulate Jewish stereotypes, those stereotypes have almost always been positive. These include perceptions that Jewish people are highly educated, successful, and tend to be very family oriented. Some of these perceptions can be seen in the fact that there is a ‘Talmud Hotel’ in Taiwan. This hotel is named after the most important Jewish text outside of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud. While, in reality, the Talmud is a massive collection of Jewish discussions over religious law, stories, and ethics compiled over hundreds of years, the promoters of the hotel believe that the Talmud represents an ancient guide on how to be successful in business. They openly promote this fact on their website and promotional materials, and proclaim that the Talmud’s methods for success serve as the hotel’s inspiration.

FN: What are your main priorities or projects as the spiritual leader of the community?

RCB :  My first priority is community building. The unique nature of Taiwan’s Jewish population, which is extremely diverse and consists of both long term and temporary members, demands that my congregation operates as a spiritual and cultural home for Jews from all walks of life, from all cultures, and all races and denominations. I have also created a new Instagram account — taiwanrabbi — to give people a glimpse into me as a person while simultaneously promoting this amazing synagogue.

In addition to rabbi, I am also an academic and an educator. With the goal of both strengthening peoples’ ties to Judaism and creating access to the rich wisdom of the Jewish tradition, I have created new weekly classes, am restarting the Sunday school, and planning a lecture series on hot Jewish topics, as I also hope to deepen the spiritual life of everyone who comes to the TJC.

As the Jews here are an important segment of Taiwan’s population, I have begun scheduling lectures at various Taiwanese universities in order to help spread understanding. Given the importance of the Jewish value of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world), I am also researching which local humanitarian causes to which my community can contribute.

Here is Rabbi Bahir with his wife, who is from Taiwan's Paiwan Indigenous community:


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A post shared by Cody R. Bahir (@taiwanrabbi)

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